Last year, I joined Warwick Labour last year, and became, slightly jokingly, the “token scientist”. I am studying Biomedical Chemistry, but still care passionately about politics, and fully believe that a little understanding of scientific developments are vital to developing long-term policies with regards to energy, foreign relations, healthcare, flood prevention and a myriad of other topics.
I am therefore writing this blog with the aim of engaging emergent political minds with the developments in science and technology that are taking place throughout the world, the possible future and present implications of these, and possibly even encouraging a few scientists to engage in politics. I will attempt to round up the fortnight’s science/health/technology news, and then bring your attention to an issue I feel has major importance, or those suggested to me by readers .
One of the most important stories this week has been the publication of data suggesting that climate change is “95% likely” to have been caused mostly by humankind’s actions over the last 100 years or so. The change in temperatures over the last 50 years appears to have been unprecedented even over far longer time periods. It is well worth noting that this 95% is a strong possibility for a scientist, especially in something with as many potential variables as climate change. Even though the average temperature is raising only by small amounts, it is important to realise that not only could this melt ice caps, increasing the amount of water in oceans, but that water actually expands on heating, and thus the same amount of water would take up more space in the oceans, contributing hugely to the rise in sea levels. The changes in temperatures also affect areas of higher and lower pressure, resulting in changing weather patterns, leaving agriculture (and wildlife) optimised for, say, monsoon rains, hugely vulnerable to failures, particularly in places that already struggle to provide reliable harvests. Combine this with rising world populations, issues with providing organic fertilizers, and shrinking farmland (due to rising sea levels), the impact on global food prices could be catastrophic, not to mention the humanitarian implications (such as a far wider spread of tropical diseases such as malaria into regions where the population has little immunity). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24292615
Considering the astronomical improvements (and the exponentially increasing rate of improvement) in computing power over the past few decades, it is perhaps unsurprising that some traditional parts of computers are nearing their limits. Silicon transistors (the most basic part of computers) are nearing their physical limits, and can be rather expensive to build (silicon crystals have to be grown in wafer-thin sheets, and are also used for tech such as solar panels). The development of a functioning transistor using carbon nanotubes could potentially allow the huge growth of computing power to continue, as well as developing the hi-tech carbon nanotube business (they are something of a “wonder material” at the moment) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24232896 These developments come at a time when quantum computing, a fundamentally different, and potentially hugely more powerful, technique, may be starting to move from theory into practice, thought it would seem it is still some time off. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/08/quantum-cryptography-computing/
Amid all the hype about 3D printed guns, and home printers, it is easy to get confused. However NASA’s recent successful 3D printing of components in space shows what the 3D printing revolution really means – mass production of small and specialised components may soon be at an end, with these components able to be printed out, tiny thin layer on tiny thin layer, within hours at the place where they are needed. This could vastly reduce shipping costs and emissions, as well as making bespoke and specialist machinery and materials available far quicker than currently possible. The development of 3D printers for non-plastics (and even theories on using it to print living matter) could thus have vast implications for international industry, implications that would have to be rapidly understood in a hugely dynamic and quickly developing field in order to avoid being left behind in what could be a major revolution in manufacturing http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24329296
Recently, Asda and Tesco’s had to withdraw Halloween costumes based on “mental patients”. It was sad to see this demonisation of mental patients as “psychos” and “nutters” to be feared, rather than as normal people with serious and debilitating diseases who deserve our love, sympathy and support. Part of the issue, however, is that many people don’t understand mental illness. They can understand a normal illness, where it’s caused by something foreign, like bacteria or a virus. But mental illness isn’t like normal illnesses that can be treated with drugs and cured. The vast majority of mental health issues are when the brain’s own, natural processes and responses go wrong (or even are just a fairly normal response to extreme circumstances, such as PTSD). Understanding what mental health disorders are caused by, and realising that it’s not as simple as just throwing pills (i.e. Prozac) at the problem, but actually about encouraging and training the brain to remove the thought processes that cause the illness, is vital to removing the taboos that blight mental illness. The movement of medical and scientific thought away from drug-oriented treatment, as discussed in these arguments, could also lead to better (and more cost-efficient) treatment.
So why is science important to politics? For a start, scientific research is big business. Finding novel techniques for making materials, drugs, chemicals anything can be worth billions to the right industry, and of course many industries (such as pharmaceuticals and the agricultural industry) are firmly based in science. Clearly then, science can make up a significant amount of industry, and as with any industry, a level of understanding of its basic processes can make the world of difference in knowing how to interpret different expert’s opinions on anything from funding needs to healthcare developments.
A more interesting question is why is politics important to science? Of course a certain (and often rather large) amount of funding comes direct from government grants, but there is nowhere near enough to go around to support all the proposed avenues for research. Thus the rest of the funding required for research must come from either charitable donations (as is often the case with disease research) or for-profit industry (such as drugs research). Of course the implications of where the funding comes from have a profound effect on the effects of the research. Drugs researched mainly by private firms will tend to be sold as a product and strictly to make the largest profit possible with negligible, if any, thought to ethics and morality. However if this funding could come from a more governmental or charitable cause, the benefits to humanity could be far in excess of those that would otherwise be repeated if profit was the only driving force.
Thus where government chooses to invest money for research is vital. It can incentivise the creation of less profitable drugs (such as those for less common diseases, or those that would only have to be taken once or twice, rather than the highly profitable drugs that have to be taken over far longer periods). If done well, it can also counter an issue of short-sighted capitalism; preventing problems from getting to serious levels far beyond this would become profitable. This isn’t one-way traffic either. State funded research can lead to developments of industries based in the local area, bringing cutting edge technology and engineering, which as well as providing highly skilled jobs (and also less skilled jobs in auxiliary areas) and wealth, but also creating a self-fulfilling reputation for a centre of research, bringing more and more of the top researchers to the UK, also helping raise the standards of British universities.
But to know where to invest, and where not to, it is vital to be able to have a basic understanding of the general state of play of science and the way things are moving, and the easiest way to develop this understanding is simply to foster an interest in developments, which is the aim of this blog.
Rowan Pearce is a Warwick Labour member, and token scientist